Tort Reform & Crashworthiness

Since 1968, the crashworthiness doctrine has held manufacturers liable for defective and dangerous cars – and for the past 50 years, manufacturers have been fighting back. Instead of taking responsibility for lax safety standards and defective designs, auto makers want drivers and taxpayers to cover the costs of their negligence.

The crashworthiness doctrine, a long-held principal rooted in case law dating back to the late 60s, established that manufacturers have an obligation to make their vehicles safe in the event of a crash. The ruling in Larsen v. General Motors found that because auto accidents are inevitable, car companies need to make sure that their cars are as safe as reasonably possible in the event of a crash. Nearly 40 years later, that opinion was backed up by the Florida Supreme Court in D’Amario v. Ford Motor Company, which established a clear distinction between fault for causing an accident and a manufacturer’s liability for a selling a defective product that made injuries worse beyond the initial accident injuries.

Basically, if another driver runs a red light and hits you, you may suffer a broken leg. But if your car’s seatbelt fails during the collision, you may also be thrown from the car and killed. If your seatbelt had worked as it should, you would be looking at a few weeks with crutches. Instead, a routine accident has ended in tragedy.

Instead of accepting blame for the faulty seatbelt, manufacturers want to put all of the blame on the driver that ran the red light, absolving them from liability and keeping their profits safe from lawsuits.

And thanks to hundreds of millions in contributions and lobbying, they’re succeeding. Since 2000, the auto industry has spent more than $520 million on lobbying and given federal candidates over $93 million in contributions. Thanks to their well-funded efforts to bend legislators’ ears, tort reforms that benefit the industry have been pushed through in several states.

Remember Florida’s ruling in D’Amario v. Ford Motor Company that we mentioned earlier? Well, guess what? Thanks to the auto industry, that ruling has been preempted by Florida’s legislature. Senate Bill 142 reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, and now juries are allowed to consider the cause of the accident when determining fault for enhanced injuries. The separation between the cause of an accident and the liability negligent manufacturers should share for the resulting injuries are no more. And why? Because the auto industry pumped money into the state, winning legislators’ sympathy. As one representative said, “We are doing this because a powerful group from outside the state – automobile manufacturers – have been pushing this issue heavily for years.” At the behest of the auto industry, legislators took it upon themselves to reverse a ruling from the state’s highest court.

And that isn’t the only show of industry strength. Money talks, and the auto industry is more than happy to throw their weight around. Take the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies in 2009. While begging for a taxpayer-funded bail out, they also demanded immunity from all past and future product liability lawsuits. In crying poor, GM and Chrysler claimed they couldn’t recover financially if they were saddled with such legal baggage. Thankfully, after overwhelming pressure from lawmakers, consumers, and victims, the auto makers were ready to negotiate. They gave up their attempt at complete absolution and agreed to accept responsibility for all future claims. So what became of the victims who had been injured by defective GM and Chrysler vehicles pre-bankruptcy? They were sacrificed. As part of their deal, the manufacturers will not have to compensate the 1,000-plus consumers who were injured or killed by their products before the bankruptcy.

We can’t continue to put auto industry profits ahead of justice. Tort reforms do nothing but codify manufacturer liability into our justice system, making all of us less safe.